“Hoa” at the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.
I recently received an email from a Vietnamese student (I’ll call her “Hoa”) who just earned her bachelor’s degree in the US. Hers is the story of many young Vietnamese who study overseas, which is why I want to share it with you. I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent.
I am a Communication (Advertising/PR) major and I want to pursue a career in the US. I would feel very lost if I have to go back to work in Vietnam. The majority of writing I did in my undergrad is in English; I don’t even have writing samples in Vietnamese. The social networks and media that I’ve got so used to here aren’t even popular in Vietnam.
Hoa is a graduate of one of Vietnam’s talented and gifted high schools, where she majored in English as a second language. Most of her classmates (about 18 out of 30) knew that they would study in the US. She chose a private liberal college on the West Coast and also studied for a semester at a public university on the East Coast while doing an internship in her chosen field.
Hoa and a number of her high school classmates graduated this May. Some have returned to Vietnam and the rest are getting jobs in the US. Of the 18 students, eight (8) have landed jobs in the US, five have returned to Vietnam and five will graduate in 2013. Most of the latter are interested in pursuing careers in Europe. Thus, 13 out of 18, or 72% of that graduating class of 30, will likely end up living and working overseas.
I’ve known for a long time, even before I came to the US, that I want to live here. Kind of a silly thing. Even though I’ve grown a lot and my perception has changed in the last four years, that still holds true. I chose to major in Communication (Journalism and Advertising/PR) because 1) I like writing; and 2) I love fashion and want to work in the field.
My parents were educated in Russia, and I consider them to be very open-minded and progressive. When I made the decision to major in Communication, my mother was very supportive. (She works for an NGO in Vietnam and earned her Master’s degree from a online program offered by a US university.) But my dad was a bit doubtful. I get where he’s coming from. He studied Electrical Engineering and ended up working in the IT field. He just didn’t understand what kind of solid career path I could pursue with this degree, especially if I had to return to Vietnam. PR is still a novel concept, and magazine publishing isn’t that strong either.
The first two summers of college I went back to Vietnam. The vacation was great, but I had a very hard time finding relevant internships. My aunt tried to get me into the translating department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where people didn’t take me seriously or assign me any work. I tried interviewing with VTV, but it didn’t work out. I was told that it was impossible to work at Heritage (Vietnam Airlines magazine) because it was plagued with nepotism. I was so confused and disappointed. Considering how competent and willing I was, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t find anything. The only serious project I was involved with was collaborating with a well-known brand image consultancy firm, but it was too short and didn’t lead to anything. It dawned on me that many opportunities in Communication and Media are in Ho Chi Minh City. And I just didn’t want to be apart from my family and friends in Hanoi.
On the other hand, there’re many available opportunities for me in the US. At school, I wrote and edited for the student newspaper for three semesters. I had internships at a fashion + entertainment news website, a start-up fashion e-commerce website and a Los Angeles-based PR agency. It is challenging to find satisfying internships and it took some branching out, but it IS possible. People here take internships seriously and value my work. Besides, there’s also the fact that you will not be able to get a job without prior internship experience.
In January, I made a bold decision to move to New York City. I barely knew anyone here & NYC is quite an intimidating city. I interned at a fashion company that I hated because all they wanted us to do was run errands. The other internship at a hosiery distributor worked out much better. And I recently got an offer from a brand management agency. I have a paid full-time internship for three months and will then be hired full-time.
My point is, considering how much experience I’ve got in the US (academic aside), it has become my world. And what goes on in the job market in Vietnam seems so distant – even though that’s where I came from. Sure, it’s tough to find jobs in the US but at least I know what’s expected of me, e.g. writing, blogging, computer/graphic design, social media skills, etc. I have tried and failed. I feel rewarded when I succeed because I know it reflects my hard work (not to say that I’m not tremendously grateful for my parents’ financial and emotional support). I know I was blessed with a gift in that I speak English with almost no accent, and my writing is better than a number of college-educated Americans. I feel that I have earned my place here, and I will try to make sure that I can stay and work in the US.
The reasons Hoa has decided to remain in the US can be summed up as follows:
- Excellent preparation in terms of fluency in American English, educational background, and professional experience gained through internships in her field (Conversely, I would feel very lost if I have to go back to work in Vietnam. The majority of writing I did in my undergrad is in English; I don’t even have writing samples in Vietnamese.)
- Limited opportunities in her field in Vietnam and conversely more opportunities in the US (PR is still a novel concept, and magazine publishing isn’t that strong either.)
- Stronger personal and professional network in the US (The social networks and media that I’ve got so used to here aren’t even popular in Vietnam.)
- Sense of being judged and rewarded (or not) based on her knowledge, skills, and experience (i.e., merit) rather than who she knows or is related to, as is often the case in Vietnam (i.e., cronyism, nepotism) – People here take internships seriously and value my work.
This is another example of an international student who was issued a nonimmigrant visa and yet, for personal and professional reasons, most of which are described above, will probably be able to navigate her way from a F-1 to an H-1B (for temporary employment of foreign workers) to a green card and, eventually, citizenship, if she so desires.
It’s also yet another case of brain circulation (i.e., the company she is interning and will later work for is a multinational with offices in New York, Paris, Mumbai, Singapore, etc.), as well as brain drain in that the United States’ gain is Vietnam’s loss.